Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Burnin' Down the House

I got the full-length version of House of Hell for Christmas 1984. The traditional stocking full of small-scale gifts was still a fixture, and the top item in each stocking was invariably a book - Mr. Men and the like in earlier years, but more substantial volumes as my sisters and I grew older. I had indicated a preference for House to be the stocking-topper that year, and it was, so I spent the time between when I woke up and when we were allowed to disturb the parents looking through the book.

Not that I hadn't read bits of it before. The temptation to peek at sections of one of the copies on the shelves in WHSmith had proved too strong (and I'd spoilered myself on the climactic twist as a consequence), but that was still my first opportunity to have a proper go at the book. No idea how I wound up failing, but the details that had been changed from the Warlock teaser ensured that it took me several tries to find out how to win the book.

House was one of the books that got singled out for attention when concerns were raised about the effect of gamebooks on children's minds. Not long after the first reports of the books' supposed harmful influence came out, my dad asked me a few questions to see whether or not there was any actual cause for concern. As I had no trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality, was not obsessed with the occult, had had no nightmares inspired by gamebooks, and wasn't self-harming (and wasn't a good enough liar to have deceived him if anything had been wrong on any of those fronts), he concluded that there was nothing to worry about, and didn't trouble me regarding gamebooks again.

My original copy was among the 50+ gamebooks I gave away or sold off in the nineties. The previous owner of the one I now own wrote on the Adventure Sheet and Evil Encounter Boxes in pencil, enabling me to deduce that he (or she) made the mistake of entering the Balthus Room, cheated on the torturer's test, and wound up heading down the false trail that includes witnessing the sacrifice in the cellar, ultimately getting captured.

Every FF adventure from this one onwards got a detailed write-up at the unofficial forum when I played it for my last 'books in order' marathon, and I'll be linking to those write-ups as I play the appropriate adventures here, in part to encourage myself to find new things to say about the books. The House write-up is in two parts.

The book makes the usual claim about being able to win even with weak initial rolls, but that's demonstrably untrue here (as is spelled out late on in the second of the above links). I was, therefore, going to fudge character creation to give myself a chance of making it to the final battle, but my rolls made that unnecessary, as I didn't get lower than 5 on any of them. So I'm a formidable
Skill: 11
Stamina: 23
Luck: 12
Fear: 12
As I have more than the minimum necessary Fear, I may do a little non-essential exploration, just to add a bit more variety.

So, the basic set-up is the same as in the teaser: lost in a storm, car in the ditch, seeking shelter and a phone in the only house nearby. But the first difference comes in before the end of the first section, as a light comes on at the side of the house, and I have the option of investigating. So I take a look, and find that the lit room is a kitchen. Two men, out of sight of the window, are mid-conversation, one expressing excitement at the possibility of being visited, the other expressing doubts about the whole affair. There's a clear threat behind the first man's response, and the second hastily reaffirms his commitment. The men then leave the kitchen, and I return to the front door and knock on it. The knocking is compulsory in this instance (though the bell-pull just rings a bell rather than activating a trap here).

Franklins opens the door (not that he's been named yet in the book), and after I explain the situation, he tells me I'm expected and leads me to a reception hall. To pass the time, I take a look at the pictures on the wall. The portrait of Lady Margaret of Danvers is particularly well-rendered: some pictures' eyes seem to follow you round the room, whereas this one's lips appear to move. And utter audible warnings about my host's murderous intent, with particular emphasis on shunning the white wine.

My initial encounter with the Earl of Drumer goes much the same way as it did in the teaser, though in deference to the picture's words I request a nice Chianti with the meal. There's a small but significant difference between the Warlock version of the Earl's tale and the one in the book: when he tells of the discovery of his sister's corpse in the woods, the body is described as having been 'dead' rather than 'naked'. And I have a first edition Puffin book, so this edit pre-dates the removal of the illustration of the human sacrifice that happened in response to complaints.

At the end of the meal I have fruit, coffee and brandy, avoiding the cheese as it's not good for me. Not that I'm lactose intolerant - it's just that the drugs do work, and I'd rather keep my wits about me tonight. Franklins shows me to the Erasmus room and (as I discover when I decide to go wandering around) locks me in. An attempt at breaking the door open just leaves me with a bruised shoulder, and as I try and make up my mind what to do next, I hear footsteps approaching. A key rattles in the lock, and I hide behind the door, watching as the hunchback from the cellar in the teaser brings a glass of some unspecified drink into the room. I pounce on him, and after a brief struggle, he pleads for mercy, so I ask him what's going on here. He is surprised at my question, and says a little about what's planned for tonight before belatedly realising that I'm not one of his Master's friends (so are they in the habit of roughing up the more menial members of the staff?). Before he can shuffle off to warn someone that he's revealed secrets to an outsider, I make a quick exit and lock him into the room.

Ignoring the lone door at the right end of the landing, I go left. The next door along has the name 'Azazel' on it, and leads into an antiquated-looking laboratory. There are times in gamebooks when characters have the option of taking a course of action that no remotely sane person would ever contemplate doing, and these actions sometimes prove beneficial (or even essential) rather than catastrophic. This is one such instance, as I drink the contents of one of the vials in a rack, and gain temporary invulnerability rather than poisoning myself (which would, admittedly, have happened if I'd picked the wrong vial).

I pass by the next couple of doors, which are labelled 'Mephisto' and 'Balthus'. There's nothing of use in either room, and there's a substantial gain in Fear to be found in one of them. No name adorns the next door I do open, which leads into a narrow passageway ending at a window, with a door set into the left wall. The door leads to the Diabolus room, another place best avoided unless you're trying to see how quickly you can get your character scared to death. The window is a different matter, though. Far too securely barred to be a means of escape, but it bears a cryptic message written in the condensation. It's never made clear who wrote it, or why, but given that I will need the information it provides, it must have some benign source.

Returning to the landing, I ignore the stairs down, and go through a second unmarked door, which leads to the storeroom where my character from the teaser found the knife. The knife is there again, and this time there's also some garlic. The liquid in the unlabelled bottle is a different colour this time round, but that doesn't make it any more appealing.

There's another door leading out of the storeroom, but I know that it can lead to a catastrophically false trail, and I'd rather not risk confirming that going through it is a guarantee of failure, so I return to the landing, passing by the third unmarked door, which leads nowhere good. Further on, the passage branches, and I take a chance on briefly deviating from the 'true' path. Moving down the side passage, I reach another two named rooms: Asmodeus and Eblis.

The former is locked, but has the key in the door, so I open it and enter a room lit by a single candle, with packing crates placed by the table on which it stands, to serve as crude seats. A moment later I discover that the room is being used as a cell, and its occupant also knows how to hide behind doors and ambush anyone who comes into the room. The accompanying illustration is a little odd, as the 'thick white hair' that is one of the man's primary distinguishing characteristics is far from prominent, and it looks as if my attacker has marbles spilling out of the neck of his robe. I fend my assailant off and point out that I'm not one of his captors. He doesn't believe me, so I ask how I can prove it, and he demands that I make the sign of the cross. I'm not a Roman Catholic, but I have seen Nuns on the Run, so I know the right order of the gestures, and do as requested.

At once the man apologises for having taken me for one of the Master's servants. I ask for his advice on how to defeat the Master, and he tells me that I'd need the Kris knife, which is hidden downstairs in a secret room that can only be opened with a password. He doesn't know the password, but mentions that Old Mordana knew it. This would not be particularly helpful information, as he adds that she died some time ago, but that message on the window mentioned Mordana, so I get the impression that I'm onto something here. The man then heads off to avenge himself on his captors however he can, and I return to the landing.

The next room along bears the name Tuttivillus, and is another deathtrap. If I hadn't eaten the drugged cheese in the teaser, the bedroom to which I would have been shown would have contained the dangers found within this one, which goes some way towards explaining why one of the available options in there is to go to bed. Here, it's a little incongruous, but it makes sense in your designated bedroom.

At the end of the landing are another three doors, one unmarked, the others with the names Belial and Abbadon. The latter name was mentioned in the message on the window, but the design of the book makes that room the last one I can visit on this level, and I happen to know that there's something worth having in one of the others, so I start by opening the unnamed door.

It leads to a bedroom, with a low fire in the grate, and a candle and a bed-time snack on the bedside table. I refrain from searching the room, as Steve Jackson couldn't resist the temptation to include some literal skeletons in the closet in the book. There's nothing wrong with the food on the table, though, and by eating it I regain the Stamina I lost charging the door out of the Erasmus room.

Restored to full health, I enter the Abbadon room. In the teaser, it was called the Lucretia room, and I had no reason to spend time in it. Here, I need to have a word with Mordana. The white-haired man was right about her being dead, but that doesn't stop her from glaring at me with pupil-less eyes and rebuking me for entering her bedchamber (though, unlike the portrait downstairs, she doesn't move her lips when speaking). She orders me to leave her to die in peace (evidently not having noticed that she did that earlier), but I have questions about the house that only she can answer. Outraged, she sets her hounds on me, but that invulnerability I gained lasts just long enough to keep the Great Danes from harming me before I put them down.

She is, understandably, still reluctant to answer my questions, but after I threaten her potted plants, she agrees to tell me what I want to know provided I know her name. It occurs to me-as-reader that there's a slight bug in the book here: a reference number was provided when I read the message on the window, and I need to turn to that number now to prove that I know Mordana's name. But I also heard that name from the white-haired man, so it would theoretically be possible for someone who spoke with him but didn't look at the window to guess that this is the Mordana he mentioned, and thus have the correct answer to the question, but not the accompanying number.

Though displeased enough to use unladylike language when I say her name, she is true to her word, so when I ask about secret rooms, she tells me where to find the hidden room I seek. The password has been changed recently, and she doesn't know the new one, but tells me that Shekou does know. That's as much as she can tell me, so I finally leave her alone and head downstairs.

Two doors flank the front door (which is only a way out insofar as the Fear gained by seeing what's on the other side of it may be enough to cause weak-hearted or overly curious characters to depart this life). I try one of the other doors, and it's locked. Ignoring the one opposite, I move down the hall to a junction, and take the turning on the same side as the door I just didn't try. Now I have three doors to choose from: one on each side, and one up ahead.

I enter a book-lined study, illuminated by a candle on an antique wooden desk. Also on the desk is a blank sheet of paper. Well, it starts out blank, but then the message 'Find Shekou' writes itself upon the paper in a childlike scrawl before fading as mysteriously as it appeared.

When visiting people, I like to look at the books on their shelves to see how much overlap there is between their literary tastes and mine. The books on display in this study don't appear to match up with what's on my bookshelves at all: no gamebooks, no SF, just lots about black magic and hypnotism. One of the former turns out to have been hollowed out, and contains a metal pentacle on a chain. According to the slip of paper with it, this is no mere fashion accessory for a Goth, but an artefact that gives its wielder power over devil worshippers. Not as useful as that might make it sound.

The study has a second door, which leads into a drawing-room that renders the layout of the ground floor nonsensical. The thing is, that drawing-room is the room I would have entered if I'd tried the door I ignored after descending the stairs. Which wouldn't be a problem if the book didn't state that the two doors in the drawing room are next to each other. The text doesn't say anything about the shape of the study, or the precise location of the door connecting it with the drawing-room, but the only way I can get close to making it all fit is as shown in this map (which only shows what my character has seen since coming down the stairs).

And that's stretching the definition of 'next to'.
Also, the stairs need to go somewhere in the long corridor.

Anyway, the drawing-room is very cosy, with a dying fire, comfy chairs, a decanter of brandy and a couple of potted plants. I help myself to some brandy, and then snoop at the letters stuffed behind the mantelpiece clock. As I take them, I find that one of the carvings laid into the mantelpiece moves, and behind it is a button. Before I can decide whether or not to press it, the fire comes back to life and two Fire Sprites leap out to confront me. Using brains rather than brawn, I manage to extinguish them at no personal risk.

Pressing the button activates a sliding panel in one of the corners of the room. Not sure which, but it can't be the one by the door (assuming my map is even close to accurate), as the panel doesn't actually lead anywhere, but just serves as bait to lure the unwary onto the trapdoor next to it. It works.

Like the trapdoor in the porch in the teaser, this one drops me onto a mound of hay in the cellar, and the hunchbacked servant (who must have been released from the Erasmus room by somebody) comes to investigate again. Having apparently forgotten that I hit him and locked him up, he gives me directions to the stairs up. I point out that we've met before, but he still doesn't remember the specifics of our earlier encounter, and introduces himself as Shekou. Knowing him to have the information I require, I ply him with brandy, then quiz him about the secret doors. He doesn't quite tell me what I need to know, but provides a big enough clue that I'll be able to pick the right password from the list at the appropriate moment.

Again realising that he's said too much, Shekou vanishes into his room, and I pop through the door on the other side of the passage, which leads to a dungeon containing four cells and three prisoners. One is inappropriately described as a 'young girl' (given that she turns out to be the district nurse scheduled for sacrifice, she must be a woman rather than a girl). The second is a tall man who wants me to help him commit suicide and deprive his captors of the pleasure of killing him (and I say more about that in my article here).

The third prisoner is a balding man in a grey gown, and that raises an interesting question. The thing is, a different talking portrait to the one I encountered mentions a potential ally dressed in grey. And if I'd asked Shekou a different question back in the Erasmus room, he'd have referred to the white-haired man in the Asmodeus room as the Man in Grey. And that man did turn out to be on my side, but he wasn't really a lot of help. Whereas this man in grey not only mentions that I need the Kris knife, but also explains that I'd have to fight the Master in a red room, reminds me of the dining room's red wallpaper, warns me that the room will now be locked, and tells me that the key is hidden behind the mirror. So is the Man in Grey from upstairs just a red herring, and the one down here the true ally? Or did Steve not give too much thought to this man's dress, and inadvertently create some potential confusion here?

Returning to the corridor, and ignoring the next door along, I again reach the stairs up, and am again attacked by examples of the fictional breed of bat that actually likes dive-bombing people.

Not a very convincing portrayal.

However, this time I hide under the stairs, as that's where Mordana told me the secret room is. Checking the wall, I find a roughly door-shaped patch that sounds hollow when I knock on it, and speak the password. Considering the lengths to which Mr. Jackson went to ensure that Mordana's question could only be answered by someone who'd read the message on the window, it's a little odd that he didn't adopt similar measures here. As it is, he just provides four options, one of them the correct answer, thereby making it possible for readers who missed Shekou's clue to make a preposterously lucky guess.

I say the word, and the secret door opens (but not where I expected it to be), allowing me into the room to pick up the box that contains the Kris. Leaving the cellar, I find my way to the reception room with the mirror that doesn't reflect me. There is still a hidden compartment in the table, but this time it contains a golden key, and the chamber behind the mirror has two doors leading from it. One is locked, but the key from the table fits it. The room beyond is very dusty, with obvious footprints leading to the loose stone in the wall behind which a second key, this one bearing a number, has been hidden. There's no mention of any footprints leading away from the hidey-hole, but that oddity is probably an autnorial oversight, as there's no 'so what happened to the person who made the prints?' Fear penalty.

Ignoring the other door behind the mirror, I step back into the reception room once the people who entered it have gone, and return to the hall. Either Steve Jackson is being peculiarly selective about which architectural details he mentions from this point onwards, or the interior of the house has actually changed: the cellar door is nowhere to be seen, and a whole hallway has likewise been misplaced, narrowing my options to two doors. One leads to the dead end that is the kitchen, but I know my way around the pre-endgame well enough to pick the dining room door instead. It's locked, but the key fits.

I ring for the butler (without the booby-trapped bell-pull outside the front door, the number of sections dedicated to getting paranoid about ringing this bell and searching for traps is frankly ludicrous) and have him fetch the Earl. Which is a little pointless, given the twist that's been added to the final fight. Given that anyone who wants to avoid spoilers should have bailed on this post a long while back, I don't have any qualms about revealing that Keyser Soze is Luke's father, calling from inside the house, and already dead. Or, more pertinently, that the butler did it. That is to say, the relationship between Franklins and the Earl is not so much 'Jeeves and Wooster' as 'disguised Demon and worshipper'.

The fight against the Master of the house is needlessly complicated by the terminology used. For the most part, Steve's been pretty good at distinguishing between Skill bonuses (cannot exceed Initial score) and Attack Strength bonuses (fully usable in battle). Here, he's forgotten. Or the bonus provided by the Kris is only partially usable unless the reader's character has lost 3 Skill points over the course of the adventure. Which I'm not sure is possible.

If I treat the bonus as applying to Attack Strength, I win the fight. If I go by the letter-of-the-law interpretation of the text, I still win, but I get a lot more cut-up in the process. Either way, my coup de grace sends the Demon flying into the chandelier, scattering lit candles and setting the curtains alight. While the Earl sobs over the corpse of his Master, I make a discreet exit, the nasty surprise behind the front door evidently having departed. By the time I reach the end of the drive, the whole ground floor is in flames.

My character views the fire with some satisfaction. I, personally, am troubled by three thoughts:
  1. If the prisoners in the cellar hadn't been killed by the time I confronted the principal villains, they're probably going to die in the fire, and it'll be my fault.
  2. If the fire attracts the authorities' attention, I'm going to have to answer a lot of awkward questions, and I don't think the truth is going to go down well.
  3. After all that, I'm no closer to getting my car fixed and making it to my urgent appointment than I was at the start of the adventure.

1 comment:

  1. It just goes to show how language changes over time. To my parents' generation, the phrase "young girl" would only ever be used to refer to an adult woman (a child would be a "little girl" of course), which would still be my first assumption upon hearing those words. Think of it like the terms "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" which refer to adult romantic partners rather than friends who are children.